“We don’t want to disappoint you sick fucks,” says Boston Underground Film Festival 2017 programmer Kevin Monahan, on the Trigger Warning Midnight Shorts Block webpage. “Here’s the shorts package that loses me a few friends every year,” he adds. No empty words are these, and it’s safe to say that nary a “sick fuck” in the building would have headed to that festival bar in the wee hours of March 27th, 2017 feeling short-changed.
While the short form may lack the commercial possibilities of the feature film, it can also be said to represent a far purer discipline in many respects, especially when it comes to horror and the macabre. When done well, shorts can be infinitely more disturbing than feature films; the shorter runtime means there’s no need to turn the situation into an ‘adventure’, there’s no need to break the tension, to give the audience a breather, no need for comic relief, for apologies, and certainly no need for a ‘happy ending’ of any kind. And you can bet your ass that not one of the talented filmmakers featured in this programme undertook any god-damned demographic box ticking.
First case in point is Hell Follows (Gokuraku-juodo, 2016), a Japan/USA collab from director Brian Harrison. Yeah, there’s a storyline of sorts on IMDB, etc, about a mob killer’s soul coming back from beyond to possess his twin brother and exact revenge on his killers, but I’m not sure that’s what you’ll take away from it. I didn’t. To the intense beat of Japanese hip-hop and electronic dance music, the viewer is assailed by a succession of intense, rapid-fire, inter-cut images, making this feel more like a particularly sinister music video, or a trailer for a film that you’d probably be too shit-scared to watch. It’s beautifully shot, with a definite gangsta lean and a wonderfully disturbing vibe running throughout. It may not tell its tale wholly successfully, but it remains a startling ten minutes of cinema, and if the Aphex Twin is looking for someone to direct a new video, he could do a lot worse than to give Harrison a call.
Mutt (2017), from US director Bruce James, is a more understated and slight affair, but is perhaps also the most horrifyingly disturbing short on the whole bill. An instant air of unease is created as we enter the Bible belt, clues to his flashing past through a car window. Another couple (teaching us something about the short film dynamic) proudly tell a diner waitress about a ‘mutt’ that they’ve ‘saved’, and then drive out deep into the woods to ‘put it to sleep’ while it whimpers plaintively from within its covered cage in the trunk. With mounting horror we realise that what they have trussed up in there is not a dog. This is the macabre short at its most nightmarish and powerful. The disturbing soundtrack, and night-time filming in the woods, the creepy solemnity of the two characters doing ‘the Lord’s work’ all marry together perfectly to chill the blood of even the most hardened of viewers, in the process marking out James definitively as another ‘one to watch’.
Next up was Studded Nightmare (Cauchemar capitonne, 2017), from French-Canadian director Jean-Claude LeBlanc and his team. Again, beautifully shot. Far from being the lurid S&M frolic that you may expect from such a title (sorry to disappoint there), we find a young couple in some remote woods ceremoniously setting fire to a chair. A series of flashbacks tells us why. Without spoiling too much, the chair been handed down from the man’s late uncle, who’d kicked it away while hanging himself, and the couple are haunted by terrifying blood-spattered visions whenever they try to take five in it. As with Hell Follows, there’s a definite J-horror vibe to this, with certain points also summoning up the spirit of the original Evil Dead. When the man finds himself approached by a slinky, sexy-sinister goth girl at one point, one senses immediately that this isn’t going to end well. If you’re inured to extreme cinema and malefic splattery images (if you’re a regular Diabolique reader, I suspect you are), Studded Nightmare is unlikely to haunt your dreams, but it’s incredibly skilfully, perhaps perfectly, rendered, and as a show-piece it amply demonstrates that LeBlanc is a talent to be reckoned with.
The same can surely be said of the next piece, For a Good Time Call… (2017), from American director and Rue Morgue / Fangoria scribe Izzy Lee. Here we have a young guy who gets his rocks off filming his bedroom antics with his lover. He’s driven out to remote woodland spot when he gets an angry call from her; one of said videos has leaked online. He denies any culpability in this, but she isn’t having any of it (neither will you) and, understandably incandescent with rage, wishes ill upon him for it. Reeling from this, our douchey protagonist gets back in his car, smokes a joint, and promptly falls asleep. He awakes a few hours later, still bleary-eyed, and sees a woman in a red dress walking away from him. He also notices a convenient public restroom to avail himself of. ‘For a hot fuck call Sylvia’ daubed on his cubicle wall takes far more sinister connotations when he finds that he’s locked in there – and the lethal, ghostly after-image of a monstrous deed committed once in this restroom makes itself felt in the present. Lee’s film represents solid short-storytelling at its best; a deftly executed short, sharp shock, with no extraneous fat on its bones. With icky, realistic gore FX by Lee herself, it’s a modern-day Tale from the Crypt that any fan of the genre should enjoy. On the strength of this, it would be fine thing to see Lee given a crack at a feature length anthology movie.
In Celine Held and Logan George’s Mouse (2017) we find yet another couple, albeit one with an entirely different lifestyle. When Danny (played by co-director George) gets back to his sordid apartment after scoring some coke, his girlfriend Vanessa (Vanessa Wasche) berates him for not securing enough of it, clearly losing patience with their bleak line-to-line existence. While she hungrily snorts a line, he tucks into a cold can of beans and nearly vomits when he finds a dead rodent in it. Vanessa immediately has dollar signs in her eyes, thinking in her whacked-out delirium that the compensation from this could mean an escape from their miserable lot in life. As the pair hammer more lines, Vanessa gets increasingly carried away with the idea and decides that one of them should eat some of the half-putrefied mouse corpse to strengthen their case and gain even more from it. Things become increasingly insane and stomach-churning as this grimly hilarious vignette of sweaty junkie desperation plays out. Mouse may be a singularly demented eleven minutes of film, but it’s also a completely believable one, that’ll leave you gasping for air by the time the closing credits roll. Comedy doesn’t come much blacker than this, kids.
Sadly, screeners for the three films following this weren’t available for the current writer to view. For the record, these were The Lower Race (Graham Roberts, 2017), Fangs & Claws 2 (Francisco Lacerda, 2016), and Princess (Jonty Williment-Knowles, 2016). This is all the more a pity as I may well have preferred them to the final film on the programme, Fucking Freak (2017). This not-short-enough film from LA-based director Salamo Manetti-Lax had outstayed its welcome before it was even a couple of minutes in. The titular filed-toothed, shaven-headed ‘freak’ (Chris Roche) is out and about weirding out the locals in this (deliberately?) cheap-looking ADHD-edited affair, with all manner of foulness on display, shock just for ‘WTF’ shock’s sake. That much is made of his horribly deformed cock should give you an idea of the level of humour aimed at here. There’s some obvious skill with a camera and cine-literacy on display, but when that’s about the best you can say of a film, then you’re not talking about a good one. It resembles a particularly cheap and careless Troma film on fast-forward. Perhaps I’m just turning into a boring old fuck – nineteen-year-old ‘edgelords’ will no doubt lap this up. There does seem to be some kind of pointed comment about social media lurking in there somewhere, but it’s completely lost in a riot of noise and mess, in the obvious desperation to be totally ‘mental’.
Barring this aberration, however, this is a wildly varied and for the most part impressive programme, and kudos should surely be fired in the festival’s direction for giving (most of) these filmmakers a platform. As someone who finds himself increasingly jaded by modern mainstream cinema (aren’t we all?), it’s heartening to see that so much pure, unfiltered filmmaking talent is out there. The future of our beloved genre is suddenly looking a little rosier. Or pant-wettingly terrifying, one or the other…